Roc-A-Fella Records/Island Def Jam
Written By Samir Siddiqui
In setting out to record his latest offering, American Gangster, the goal for Jay-Z was to produce a loose concept album, influenced by scenes, as well as overall themes from the highly-anticipated film of the same name. However, the finished project is impacted by the gangster-flick not only lyrically, but almost more importantly, in the way in which it is constructed. Cinematic production, a dramatic intro and outro, the display of reoccurring themes, both vivid and clear, and well-written story-telling, all play an important part in making American Gangster a film-like experience in the form of an LP. American Gangster provides a throwback feel in more ways than one, as the album not only maintains a correlation with the 70’s backdrop of the film musically, but also has Jay returning to his lyrical roots, dropping clever gems reminiscent of his immaculate debut set Reasonable Doubt. “Pray” immediately sets a dark, suspenseful tone for the start of the album, as Jigga details the effects of illegal activity on it’s immediate surroundings, leading way for the Marvin Gaye-sample-drenched “American Dreamin'”.
But like all good albums, and movies for that matter, American Gangster is not without it’s flaws, and “Hello Brooklyn 2.0” is a glaring one- the Jay-Z/Lil Wayne collaboration feels completely out of place- the two rappers fail to generate any type of vocal chemistry, and the production effort stands in direct contrast to the slick, smooth production that surrounds it. The middle portion of the album, however, is good, but not great, as the college band-sounding number “Roc Boys” and the laid back Neptunes contribution “I Know” lighten the mood effectively.
The closing stretch on American Gangster is what the LP truly builds towards, as the album bows out in fine fashion. The revamped “Ignorant Shit” is undeniable, as Jay is at his most confident cutting into the Just Blaze-produced track with witty quips such as, “They’re all actors, lookin’ at themselves in the mirror, backwards, can’t even face themselves, don’t fear no rappers…So don’t believe everything your earlobe captures, it’s mostly backwards, unless it happens to be as accurate as me.” “Say Hello” and “Fallin” have producers DJ Toomp and Jermaine Dupri flipping their usual script, as they drop moody, sweeping soul instrumentals to compliment the introspection of Jay-Z the hustler (although the rapper adds his two cents to the mix, “When Jena 6 don’t exist, that’s when I’ll stop saying bitch, bitchh“. Elsewhere, Jay-Z and Nas make good on collaboration number two with “Success,” another hard-hitting track on which the two legendary emcees let loose lyrically. The lead-single “Blue Magic” could have probably been put into the thick of the album, but it’s relegated to the bonus-track section, alongside the overly-familiar sounding title track.
Overall, the album plays out like a good movie, overly slick at times, but generally, a riveting experience. Diddy and the Hitmen more than hold down the album’s production, as their substantial involvement in crafting the soundscape for the LP pays off in a big way. As for the star of the show, Jay-Z plays off the gangster persona with relative ease, and although the hugely successful side of Jigga does seep into the album in certain stretches, the vibe of the album both lyrically and sonically is consistent and solid for most of the album. At this rate, a sequel might be in order.
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